Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Angel Words & Demon Words & Those that Make Us Smart

As a long-time poet, I am a firm believer in the “angelology” of words and that poems originate in the psyche and my conscious self does little more than provide a final shape.  This is a Romantic notion, of course, harking back to the Italian Renaissance, and in our current world of SEO and rich metadata, this idea seems decidedly quaint.

When I was a graduate student. a professor suggested I read Hemingway night and day, both for style and content.  Since he was a Hemingway scholar, I knew this recommendation was in part rhetorical and even theatrical.  After all, hadn’t he occasionally come to class dressed as his favorite author, one time rifle in hand?  Neither was loaded.  But I took his advice and read Hemingway.  When all the chest-thumping about his unadorned prose is done, Hemingway has much to teach us about the language of abstraction. He couldn’t stand words like honor, glory, courage and heroism, preferring the concrete names of northern Italian towns and villages.  He stood with Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who, in a conversation of Prince Hal, the budding Puer about honor, replied, “Honor is he who died on Wednesday.”  Perhaps even more damning in Shakespeare’s grim wit, honor had no skill in surgery and couldn’t take away the grief of a wound.

It will take more than a university professor, even with rifle in hand, to preside over any orthodoxy in word choice and language style.  The cat is indeed out of the bag and trending on YouTube.  Still, words matter and can kill or least annoy, as every recipient of wayward smartphone conversations will attest. One doesn’t have to spend much time on the Web looking at some version of worst word sites to realize that there is still much language out there that still can’t take away the grief of a wound but that can provide a form of water torture, with an affected Valley Girl Lilt, as nagging as splinters under a nail.

I’m not talking about George Carlin’s seven dirty words or sites like Cracked.com, that explores the relationship between language, emotion, meaning, sound and feeling in the mouth as criteria to measure against the comfort level of the Decider.  Here, moist, slurp, bulbous and yolk are not likely to make the cut.  But these words are unlikely to interrupt my reverie to the degree the more innocuous do:  whatever, absolutely, awesome, basically, anyways, amazing, bling and dude et al, delivered at volume on speaker with bi-coastal sincerity and theatrical hand-wringing.  After all and after a certain age, we all want to become grammarians, a guardian of syntax, residing in that Senex consciousness where rules are made and enforced.

I’ve been working with nextPub, the publishing industry’s tech incubator, as it prepares to launch and market in June, 2012, the PRISM Source Vocabulary (PSV) Specification, which defines robust metadata taxonomies and controlled vocabularies that can be used to configure federated source content/rich media repositories. In this spirit, I’ve been trying to learn more about how content can be defined and structured so that it can be most useful across various channels and platforms.  This is poetry of another kind, hard-edged and smelling of nouns, more like the Imagists than the Romantics.
I read an article by a group at Trinity College, Dublin, that addresses the importance of targeted content “slices” for changing consumer demands and needs.  One obstacle to this is a reliance “upon bespoke, proprietary content” that lacks description and metadata.  I finished the article but all I could think about was the use of “bespoke” in this context.  Call me old fashioned, but I immediately thought of Shakespeare and Coleridge and the archaic use of “bespeak,” meaning to speak about, to complain, to order, to foretell and the like.  Just how did one of my favorite words or a version end up in an Irish Content Management System?

Putting on my grammarian’s hat, I acknowledge that “bespoke” is a version of “bespeak” and means custom-made, usually in reference to apparel.  For centuries, it has been very British and very upper crust. You ordered a suit or pair of shoes ahead of time and they were spoken or bespoken for, like a hand in marriage.

My thanks to the WSJ for recently publishing a front page article on why “bespoke,” that once had a narrow, somewhat snooty definition, has entered the vernacular and is as likely as not to show up on the next SAT.   The Journal notes that there are two dozen “bespoke” businesses in New York City alone, from bookstores to barber shops.  In the mergers and acquisition world there are “bespoke deals.” Hungry?  Look for Bespoke Crackers.  Live in San Francisco and want a custom bike? Go to Bespoke Cycles.

I served as editor and publisher of Bicycling magazine for a decade and never found the phrase “custom bike” wanting.  The phrase immediately conjures up scenes of northern Italy, from Milano to Venice, populated by Colnago, Columbus, Cinelli, Campagnola and others who know something about hand-made bicycle frames and parts.  Bespoke bicycles sounds just too English and pedestrian and seems much closer to “bangers and mash” than a Mediterranean dish.  And, yes, this too is part of my Italian fantasy made necessary and inevitable by my British birth.

The Journal concludes with the observation that “bespoke” is becoming downright ordinary. A word that for centuries has been the province and differentiator for generations of Saville Row tailors has become the leading adjective to describe literally hundreds of business categories, feeding the insatiable hunger for key word dominance, market edge and business advantage.

As my British friends would say, before the word made the sorry list: Brilliant!

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